I read recently that Waitrose are adding turkey eggs to their range of speciality eggs, which already includes goose, duck and quail. Chocolate eggs are, of course, the sort that we more readily associate with Easter, but even they came into being because of the symbolism between eggs and new life.
Eggs have been part of man’s diet from the earliest times, no doubt first taken from wild birds, but the domestication of fowl to ensure a regular supply began as early as 2500BC. It’s hard to imagine that less than 100 years ago free range farmyard hens were pretty much the sole source of domestic eggs. Battery farming started in the United States in 1920, spreading from there to Europe, and in less than half a century accounted for approximately three-quarters of all the eggs produced in Europe. Consequently many people forgot that eggs are naturally a seasonal delight although the wild, or at least less those from less intensively reared birds, remain so.
But there is a real glimmer of hope in all this. From 2012 Battery cages are to be banned in the European Union – although the “enriched” cages that replace them are, according to organisations such as Compassion in World Farming, barely significant in terms of the improvement they provide for animal welfare. Still, it is encouraging that we are now backtracking on one of the earliest examples of large scale factory farming.
At the Conference for Real Farming in January, Philip Lymbery of CIWF cited the minute incremental nature of the forthcoming ban as one of the key reasons why the organisation was switching to a wider, more visionary message in its campaigning. However much of a disappointment it must be to animal welfare campaigners that progress is so slow, I think we should take heart from the fact that things are at least moving in the right direction in respect of battery hens. I credit TV personalities Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, to a lesser extent, Jamie Oliver for much of this progress. Keeping a few chickens, even in cities, is reportedly one of, if not the fastest growing, “hobby” in the UK. Coupled with the growth in allotments this is encouraging news indeed. It would seem that people can taste the difference and, given that neither activity is actually likely to save you money, are prepared to spend time and money to eat good food.
From a health point of view there also appear to be positive benefits to eating free range eggs. As you would expect, the nutritional quality is directly related to what the hens have been eating and those that mainly forage for their own food tend to produce eggs with less cholesterol and fats, while being several times higher in vitamins (B2, B12, A and D) and omega 3 fatty acids than eggs from battery hens.
The British Heart Foundation had previously advised that we should limit our egg consumption to three or four a week but last year removed the limit from their guidance realising that whilst eggs do contain cholesterol, it is the saturated fat in foods that is more important in determining blood cholesterol levels. A medium sized hen’s egg has only 78 kcals and 5.8g of fat (including some healthy unsaturated fat) so they remain an excellent affordable and sustainable source of protein, vitamins and minerals and are particularly valuable in a vegetarian diet.
Eggs in Cooking
From a cooks point of view eggs are indispensible. The two most important functions that an egg performs in cookery are coagulation and the ability of the white to trap air, thus increasing its volume by as much as eight times. This latter point was considered in a previous article Iced Cream, but let’s take a moment to look further at coagulation.
Coagulation occurs when the protein molecules begin to unfold and then bond with other molecules. The shape and chemical charge of protein molecules are affected by many things, for example salt, heat, acidity, air. If we boil an egg the only consideration is heat. A large proportion of an egg consists of water (80% of the white and 50% of the yolk). The proteins of both the white and the yolk thicken and solidify when heated – but at slightly different temperatures. The white starts to set at about 60°C (140F) whereas the yolk remains liquid until about 65°C (150F) and does not set firm until 70°C (160F). This small difference largely accounts for the astonishing variety of textures that can be obtained from eggs. As protein molecules change shape and bond, the new structures at first hold water but with continued heating, as the mass becomes denser, so the water is lost. In boiled eggs this would result in a rubbery texture but when cooking eggs where the white and yolk have been beaten together, as in scrambled eggs or omelettes, the liquids would separate out from the solids, known as curdling. This phenomenon is such a regular occurrence whenever I have been served eggs for breakfast when staying in an hotel that I have given up ordering them. Yet perfect scrambled eggs are my favourite breakfast dish, a treat for special occasions such as Christmas (when they accompany smoked salmon) and also the perfect accompaniment when I am lucky enough to have picked a decent haul of Chanterelles.
We shouldn’t overlook such seemingly simple dishes. I recently ordered a poached goose egg for lunch in a café in Bath and it was as good a dish as any I have paid several times more for in an expensive restaurant. The title of one of Elizabeth David’s collections of writings “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine” reminds us of how quickly a delicious meal can be put together from ingredients that most of us have to hand.
You can read my selection of classic egg recipes here.
Some handy measurements
If you want to substitute hens’ eggs with eggs from other birds, or even if your hens’ eggs are of differing sizes, it is helpful to be able to translate volume into the more usual sizing descriptors. Being accurate about size is especially important in baking and you will often find the assumption that has been used throughout a book stated at the beginning.
By volume a size 3 egg would be 2 fl oz, whilst the white alone will be 1 fl oz – a very handy measure to know if you have a bowl of egg whites in the fridge waiting to be used.
Weighed in its shell, a size 3 hens egg will be between 60 and 65 grammes, each 5 grammes above or below this represents one egg size.
Never take eggs from the wild. It is illegal and in most circumstances leads to a loss of birds.
However, for a few weeks at the end of April/early May, you may be able to buy black-headed Gulls eggs. The collectors pick only from nests with a single egg in them, partly because this indicates it has been laid recently and is therefore fresh, but mainly because gulls, like chickens will always lay a replacement. They maintain that because their period of collection coincides with the spring tides, by delaying the bird from laying a full clutch until these tides are over, they are preventing them being destroyed.
Seagull eggs have been harvested and eaten as a delicacy for centuries but there are now only around 8 active licenced collectors. Natural England issues licences for collection of black-headed gulls eggs on only six sites. The Licensees or their relatives must have been collecting since before the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 – this means that in practice it is very difficult to obtain a licence and so the practice will soon die out.